When in 2019 I put myself in real trouble after writing The day I didn’t interview Lord Sugar about my miserable time working for a company of Brexiteers in London where colleagues would argue like madmen over the correct way to pronounce Spandau Ballet and would bully each other for weeks over this, I couldn’t ever imagine that someday I would actually get to meet in person one of the five guys from the band that made the history of 1980s blue-eyed soul and new wave music, released smashing successes like True and To Cut A Long Story Short, sold 25 million albums, performed at the legendary Live Aid in 1985 alongside Paul Young, David Bowie, Queen, The Who, Dire Straits and was prominent in the New Romantic era of British pop.
And so what an honour has it been to run an interview with Spandau Ballet founding member and saxophonist Steve Norman who is a skilled composer, a master in at least five different musical instruments, and also happens to be a true gentleman and a seriously lovely human being.
Whilst Spandau Ballet disbanded in 1990, reunited in 2009 and split again in 2019, he got involved in various different music projects and collaborations with other artists and is now touring again with his own band, The Sleevz.
The occasion to meet Steve has been the release of a charity cover of Angels, the iconic 1997 song by my teenage, current and eternal crush Robbie Williams.
Re-titled Angels (Of The Nation) for this circumstance and collectively performed by a plethora of British and American artists including fellow Spandau Ballet man Tony Hadley, Marcella Detroit, David Bowie’s guitarist of 40 years Earl Slick, The Zombies and The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock under the joint name Kindred Spirit, the scope of this charity single is to both commemorate renowned music producer Steve Brown who passed away in 2020 and to raise funds to offer sculptures of angels as gifts to the grieving families of doctors and medical professionals who reportedly died of Covid whilst working for the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK.
Steve, where did this charity single come from?
Angels (Of The Nation) was born as an idea from a very well-respected producer in the UK called Steve Brown. He produced The Cult, The Manic Street Preachers, Culture Club and many others. He was putting together a track – but it wasn’t Angels, it was another track – and before the end of the year was out, tragically he had an accident and passed away due to complications. And so this kind of implied a different development of the whole project. His original idea was to show gratitude and appreciation for the families of NHS frontline workers who lost their lives fighting against Covid and so gifting them with this angel statue that they can look at and, hopefully, it will bring a smile to their face through this tragedy. These angels are beautiful sculptures and I’m quite proud of how we got the record together.
Who else is involved in Angels (Of The Nation)?
We got The Zombies, Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke and David Bowie’s guitarist Earl Slick. Jools Holland came in later, I got Tony [Hadley, of Spandau Ballet] involved – he was so busy but Steve Brown personally asked for Tony, so it was only right to get him into the project. Then we got Marcy Detroit of Shakespears Sisters who is celebrating 50 years in the music business, which is just incredible, she looks so young! And then we got The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock in, he was on board since the beginning, I played with him several times – he’s a good lad, he makes me laugh. I was a Sex Pistols fan back in the 1970s so it is good to be able to perform with him – even from a distance. And that was a tricky thing in this transatlantic Zoom we were doing, where everybody did recall their individual parts in their own homes, or studios, or whatever, and then Paul Mitchell and John Etchells would just put everything together, really making this thing happen, which is something to be proud of, I think.
What was it like to make a cover of such a recent song? Angels was made in 1997, it’s not like something from the old days.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a great song, isn’t it?
You tell me!
You know, years ago, like in the 1950s or the 1960s or even more than that really, people would release like a jazz record, and a week later there would be a saxophone version or that record – or someone else would do it. They did it a lot in the 1960s with tunes – maybe one version didn’t work and so they gave it to another artist the next month and that would be a hit. And I think Angels is a great tune, and I didn’t realise that it wasn’t a hit in America.
Yeah, they don’t really know about Robbie Williams in America.
Which is strange, isn’t it? Because Angels is so familiar to us in Europe. And you never know, maybe we can reckon in America as Kindred Spirits – that’s the name of the band, our collection of artists!
What achievements are you most proud of, at this stage in your career?
Being able to stay in the music business this long – over 40 years now! I mean, besides obviously the personal ones, my children, my family, and that’s the biggest thing and I’m lucky enough to be able to balance the two – my friends, my family and the music, great laughs. And then some really great, fantastic memories, things like the Live Aid in 1985 and, of course, touring in Italy in the 1980s and in Europe, and all the great stuff! And I’m still in touch with so many people from back in the day, that would come to my concerts. And I do a lot of different things, sometimes a session playout in my corner here, normally I would be on tour with my band The Sleevz… Spandau Ballet have come to an end now, but we’re still in touch and I’m happy to say this, I made my peace with everyone and it’s nice to be able to remember the Spandau Ballet moments and craziness and the time we had together with fondness, not with bitterness.
Are there any memories from performing at the Live Aid in 1985 you would like to share?
Oh, I mean, obviously being on stage when there was just a sea of people out there, and we played four songs but I don’t remember too much of the performance itself. I do remember fondly the day before when the artists came into the Wembley Stadium to do the soundcheck. We’d always done the soundcheck before the gig, so I took my camera on stage, a big old-style camera you would put on your shoulder, when there where Status Quo just warming up, and I knew them – we all knew each other – and so I got them waving into the camera and then there was Martin Kemp and the other Spandau Ballet members just pretending to play around with their guitars and so on! Very funny, fantastic memories, I’ve got some really nice footages and tapes taken backstage. I’ve got one tape that I haven’t even seen since I recorded it and I wonder what’s in it. I just put it “somewhere safe”. Really, you know where you put something “somewhere safe”?
Yeah, and you lose it.
Exactly, you lose it. So don’t ever put anything “somewhere safe” – just leave it where it is! I cannot find that tape but I’ll let you know when I do!
Oh yes, please. And do you believe a band could never split? What would it take to stick together?
The first word that comes to my mind but not just relating to my experience, just in general, I think is the lack of communication and the lack of respect because of that lack of communication. You can’t blame people too if they want to do other things, but I think you need to tell people in the right way, and make sure you do tell them to start with. That’s been something that really infuriated me over the years: if people don’t want to do it, just make sure everyone else knows, because otherwise they’re suddenly out of work and they get to get things going all over again. And that’s tricky. Other than that, just make sure you know what you’re signing, and that everyone is very clear right at the beginning about what they’re letting themselves into. You just don’t want to sign contracts without reading the small print, because the devil is in the details. The devil is definitely into the details when it comes to music, and “whether there’s a hit there is a rip”, so just keep all that and keep respect for each other and don’t take your eyes off of where you would be without those people in the first place; a group is a team, so respect and communication are crucial.
What do you think of the current state of music?
The current state of music? I find there’s so much of it! I like the mixture and when people mix things up and you’ve got a lot of new music – I know you’re probably going to ask me who, but…
Diana Ross for example, she’s got something coming out soon and there’s a couple of great tracks in there. But it’s not so much the music itself, it’s how it’s sold and disseminated which makes a major difference, I think. It used to be that you had to build up before a record release. And these days, it’s the other way around, so you release the record early, and then you do the promotion, which is a bit weird for me, it doesn’t make any sense, but it seems to be working. And the main downsides at the moment is the inequality with streaming, like Spotify and all these platforms that simply don’t pay enough money to the artists and composers. So, I think we’re gonna have a whole generation of kids aged 14 now deciding not to get into the music business simply because it doesn’t pay, which is a real shame, and we are losing all the live venues as well, and Covid has really been a nail in the coffin, I think.
What do you think is going to happen to the live music industry in the UK?
Hopefully, the prime minister in this country, Boris Johnson, starts supporting all the arts, all the live venues, all the theatres, including the little ones where the groups started out and started cut their teeth. As Spandau Ballet, we started playing in the pubs in the beginning, and in all these classic venues. And I hope there’s going to be more clarity and transparency and fairness when it comes to this.
What do you think of these live streaming music events? A lot of people pay to stream shows live now, which is shocking for me.
Well, it’s not really live for me.
What do you mean?
I think some people call it live, but it’s all recorded, otherwise, there would be delays. Well, there are some software I think you can use now to sync music for people in different places, but it’s just an excuse: if you were to Zoom for all those people at the same time you couldn’t do it because of the delay. So just play live. I like the idea of playing live and I keep live as much as possible, whenever I do any messages, whenever there’s some cameo thing, and it’s not always perfect and sometimes my voice cracks, but that’s the beauty of live, isn’t it? It’s to see something that could go wrong!
Who are your main influences in music?
My go-to reference in the 1970s was Stevie Wonder and his Talking Book album, so I got into soul music, David Bowie, of course, Prince, I really enjoyed playing with Earl Slick who is Bowie’s alumni, and I love the whole 1970s scene, I love good musicians. Also Iggy Pop, I was fortunate enough that he asked me to jump up on stage during one of his festival gigs. Iggy Pop asking me that is one of the ticked boxes on my bucket list, really! I still cannot believe it, I’m still excited to play with people whose music I was listening to while I was growing up.
Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
To Cut a Long Story Short reminds me of how excited it was, I was, we were at that point in 1979-1980, when it was all just kicking off, when the future was in front of us and we were just like “Where is this going to go?”, it was so exciting. And we were quite edgy and aggressive back then, and then True came out, and you cannot deny the power of the song True!
How do you feel when you hear one of these songs playing on the radio?
Oh, it’s great, of course! I guess the best time was when I heard To Cut a Long Story Short on the radio for the first time. I just thought, “Oh my God, wow!” – it was different from when you were playing it live, where there’s someone talking over at the beginning and the disc jockey interrupts at the end and the country’s listening! I’ll never forget that tune and the first time I heard myself on the radio.
What did lead you towards the saxophone? The sax is not the first instrument kids would normally go for when starting out a band. And you also play other instruments.
Oh no, it wasn’t me, I never ever had a desire to play the saxophone at all, I just wanted to be a really good guitarist. For me, the drive has always been to be a good musician, to be taken as a good musician. And then I always wanted to be a drummer when I was growing up, but I could never afford a drum kit really, and at the top of the block of flats where I lived there was no room to play in, and the noise would have annoyed the neighbours, so I just got interested in the guitar when I was 14, and then Spandau Ballet got together. I think it was 1981 and we were quite funky and it was still club music by then, and so I got into percussions which I felt was something I could do, and then I looked to go back to the guitar! But there were two of us, two guitarists between me and Gary [Kemp, of Spandau Ballet] and he took up the lead and so I was like, ok, you’re not leaving much space for me, and so I looked around for another instrument, and it was nearly the trumpet – that close it was to be the trumpet – but I feel it is not very flexible or versatile, where the saxophone is. And at the time, in the early 1980s, the saxophone was popular, more popular than it is now. And so I got myself a sax – and only like a year later we were doing a true album!
What was your dream job as a child? What would you be doing now if you didn’t make it into the music industry?
I did not think about this often, I was studying in art school – I say “study”, but well, loosely studying in an art school, and all that I wanted to be actually was to form a band, which I did. Gary was in the a band at the time and had it renewed for a couple of years. And as you know, we’ve been friends at that point. And we went everywhere together in the 1970s – I’m talking about 1975 here. We went on to see bands at all these classic clubs, like the Marquee Club in London Soho and other places that are no longer around, and saw people like AC/DC before that great album Back in Black… I was listening to it yesterday, I absolutely love that album, it’s brilliant… but when we saw them at the time, there were like 20 people in the audience, they hadn’t broken yet! And so I pressured Gary a little bit really to form a band together. And then John Keeble came in – we went together to see The Sex Pistols and that kind of turned him on… I bumped into him into the musical room at school because there were drums there and I was used to get there for lunchtime and yeah, at some point we all went to school together. And then Tony came up to me and said “Are you looking for a singer for the band? I’ll sing for you!” – and there was this huge guy looking at me [Ed. Note: Tony Hadley is 6’4”, or 1,93 cm tall] and I was like “Oh ok, nice to meet you by the way!” – I never really met him before. And then Martin [Kemp, of Spandau Ballet] came later, as you know – with Michael Ellison and Richard Miller before him. So that’s it, Silvia – get the question again!
That was a brilliant answer, actually. Are there any artists you would particularly like to collaborate with, at this stage in your career?
If it’s dead or alive, I would go Prince and, of course, Bowie. I have worked with a lot of David Bowie’s musicians like Woody Woodmansey and James Stevenson, and the remaining of Bowie’s 1970s’ band, The Spiders from Mars, who is basically just Woody Woodmansey now. But Bowie sadly passed away before we could do something. And so yes, I would say Woody and eventually Tony Visconti – who is probably my favourite producer ever who produced Bowie and T. Rex – and also Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17, we were on tour together. I’ve also been on tour and played several gigs with Mike Garson who is Bowie’s piano man, they were very close, and in fact, when Bowie was still around, he gave us his blessing, and the only promotion that we got on social media was through his official David Bowie channels. He kept an eye on it and he gave his blessing much certainly. So that was great, it is nice to be able to perform with people you admire. Then there’s also Iggy Pop, Steve Harley from Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, who is a friend of mine and we’ve been on a couple of tours together… I’m sure there’s still a long list of people I would like to tick off! I’m working my way through it!
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
They’re great, aren’t they? I mean, it’s entertainment but then, you know, in this country people and the media seem to like when you’re up there and suddenly you get down. They seem to take joy and pleasure out of that and I don’t understand that. It is certainly not like that in other countries, like in Italy, or America, or Spain, there’s a little more respect if you really reached the success they still respect you whether you’re still continuing it or not – and in things like The X Factor and all those reality programmes some of the artists are just young kids and they’re sort of let go after a year or so. As long as people are respectful and help people to go through all this and through these particularly challenging times when the world is falling apart, then it’s good.
Would you like to add anything else at all? New projects, new plans?
My plans are that at the end of August 2021 there will be the first live gig for me and my band The Sleevz after Covid. We’re in London on the 26th and 27th of August at the PizzaExpress Live in Holborn, it’s a very popular gig, I did quite a couple of shows there, and straight away after there’s the Lytham Festival in the North of England where I’m on the same bill as Marc Almond, and I really look forward to that. Marc is a friend and we perform together, I really look forward to being with lots of people again, and I think it’s going to be incredible, not for me but for a lot of audiences: people are going to go nuts! I really look forward for the live acts to come back, even just to go and see other performers, rather than just performing myself. And I’m also writing a lot, so hopefully, at some time I can release new materials as well.
And when do you think this will be?
Oh, I can’t say it! It seems to be that I’m moving on, I’ve got ideas for songs and then I’m not finishing them – or I got them finished but I just don’t record them, and then some other ideas just go and off on a tangent… I’ve got lots of random things floating all over and it’s like addictive stuff, but any day anytime soon I’m going to focus on that and just get it done!
★ If you love 1980s music, you may also enjoy our interviews with Paul Young, Barry Blue, Limahl, UB40, Katrina and The Waves, Suzi Quatro, major US concert promoter Danny Zelisko and Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes